“I believe our church is a conversation conduit where we’re trying to teach people this is a conversation. You’ve got to sit at the table here. I can’t sit there for you. That’s why Jesus came, so you didn’t need a priest in the middle. You don’t need to go to a confessional booth. You can go straight to the source.”
My gut response was, “Where is that in the Bible?” I was provoked but not surprised, for this kind of view of the priesthood is not uncommon among evangelical Protestants (and one can only hesitatingly fault Protestant believers for not understanding a doctrine that even most Catholics do not adequately understand).
But anyone who does understand what the Catholic priesthood is will have no trouble seeing that Lentz, one of America’s most influential pastors, is unfortunately deeply misinformed. He seems to understand the priest to be an unnecessary middle man and therefore an interference to one’s personal relationship with God.
But is the priest, in fact, unnecessary? And further, does he interfere with the Christian right to go straight to God in prayer and consolation? Let’s look at this a little closer.
How Many Priesthoods Are There?
A priest is a mediator who offers sacrifice. But the Bible says that Christ is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). Furthermore, the Letter to the Hebrews asserts that Christ is the one high priest (see Hebrews 5-10). How then could a priesthood be tolerable given what the Scriptures tell us? It all comes down to distinctions.
The erroneous assumption that Lentz and many others make about the Catholic and (equally valid) Eastern Orthodox priesthoods is that they are additional to Christ’s; and if they are additional to Christ’s priesthood, then they are competing with Christ’s priesthood.
But the Christian priesthood is not a competitor with the priesthood of Jesus. Rather the Christian priesthood participates in that one holy priesthood. Theologian Karl Adam puts it this way in his classic The Spirit Of Catholicism:
“However manifold and various its names and duties were and are, there is nevertheless but one single priesthood, since the priesthood of Christ is but one.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this participatory nature of the Catholic priesthood equally clear:
“The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church. The same is true of the one priesthood of Christ; it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ’s priesthood: “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.” (CCC 1545)
When Christ suffered and died on the cross He offered Himself, the Lamb of God, for the sins of the world. He was both priest and victim; and because He was God offering Himself it was the perfect sacrifice. Now in heaven, He continues to offer Himself before the throne of God:
“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” (Rev 5:6)
In this way, Jesus intercedes for us continually (Heb 7:25) as the High Priest who fulfills the Old Covenant priesthood which mediated with God on behalf of sinners. But it cannot be forgotten that Jesus is also the sacrificial Lamb of the New Covenant Passover. This is why St. Paul writes:
“For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast….with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor 5:7, KJV)
And just as the Old Covenant people of God had to eat the sacrificial lamb at the Passover, so also must the New Covenant people of God. But the New Covenant Passover lamb is God Himself—and He gives Himself to be eaten under the appearance of bread and wine. That is why St. Paul gives the Corinthians this sobering reminder:
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread….Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor 10:16-17; 1 Cor 11:27)
The sacrificial banquet over which the Catholic priest presides is what the Church calls the Eucharist; and it has been the center of Christian devotion and worship since the beginning, as this first-century excerpt from the Didache illustrates:
“Assemble on the Lord’s day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one.” (Didache 14 [A.D. 70])
Participation In The Work Of God
But can such “participation” in the work of Christ really square with what the Bible says?
Without a doubt. The decision to participate in and through the life of God is of the essence of what it means to be a Christian; and we see this invitation to work with God play out in many ways.
Consider, for example, that God by His grace is the true converter of hearts; and yet we are called to be evangelical, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). God is the one mediator and knows our hearts better than we know them ourselves, and yet we are called to pray for one another before God (1 Tim 2:1-5). There is no other foundation than Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:10-11; 1 Pet 2:6-7); and yet St. Paul writes that the apostles are the foundation of the Church (Eph 2:19-21). Jesus is the Good Shepherd; but He invites Peter to become a shepherd for His people (Jn 21:15-17). And there is one Saviour. Yet St. Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
“I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:22)
“Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
Examples of participating in the life and work of God are manifold in the New Testament, and are highlighted by the ultimate invitation: to become “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). For as St. Athanasius asserted in the 4th century, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Jesus also directly commands the apostles to carry out the sacrificial meal He instituted at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance [anamnesis] of me”, a statement that has distinct sacrificial overtones (which is more thoroughly explained here and here).
Read the Letter to the Hebrews. What word keeps popping up when the sacred author refers to Christ’s high priesthood? Melchizedek. We are told that “Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 6:20).
But who’s Melchizedek? He’s the mysterious priest-king that shows up in the Book of Genesis, offering a sacrifice of bread and wine, and blessing Abram:
“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abram] and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:18-19)
In the same form, Jesus and His priests offer bread and wine; and in return God gives Himself under the appearance of the bread and wine offered—for Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.”
The apostles and their successors have done just this very thing “in remembrance” every since, that those who would receive the blessed bread and wine in faith would receive the indwelling of God within their very person. Those who receive the Eucharist are blessed with Holy Communion—literally—through the anointed hands of the Christian priest. So when Lentz implies that priests unnecessarily block Christians from going “straight to the source” of grace; he couldn’t be more backwards in his understanding of what a New Testament priest is.
In The Person Of Christ
St. John Vianney once remarked that if we truly knew the dignity of the priest, we would die, not out of fear, but out of love. How does this make sense? Well, it makes sense when we realize that the priest can perform their duties only because of Christ working through them. That’s why we say that the Catholic priest functions in person Christi or “in the person of Christ.”
St. Paul understood this essential dependency on grace within the Christian priesthood. He wrote:
“Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.” (2 Cor 2:10)
Here Paul is referring to the “ministry of reconciliation” conferred by Jesus onto the apostles, including Paul (2 Cor 5:18).
Lentz seems to have a problem with confession to a priest; but it is in that encounter where God’s forgiveness touches the souls of men most profoundly, through the ministry of the priest. The Catholic Church encourages Christians to confess straight to God outside of the confessional (as Protestants do). But “confession to a priest” is the formal way that Jesus wished for Christians to confess their sins and receive God’s forgiveness, and hear the words “Your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus was not being symbolic or cryptic when he approached the apostles in the upper room and spoke in this regard:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
Thus when the apostles uttered the ineffably gracious words, “Your sins are forgiven,” it was not by their power but by the power of Christ working through them. Interestingly, immediately after he asserted that Jesus left no need for priests or confessional booths, Pastor Lentz said this:
“I’m a preacher, but I’m not better than you. I don’t know God better than you. I’m not closer to God than you. I just have a different title. You have every right, where you are right now, to turn and talk to God for yourself. And that’s what I love about Jesus.”
He seems to imply, first, that the ordained priesthood would serve as a barrier to humility. Well, perhaps, given that priests (like preachers) are sinners like anyone else. But the priest’s calling is to serve (like preachers); and his ability to administer the sacraments does not depend on his own personal holiness. The priest is an instrument—and Christ is the high priest who performs the sacraments through him and with him. There is mystical but very real unity between Christ and the members of His Church (recall His words to the persecutor Saul the persecutor: “Why do you persecute me?”)
Without Christ, the priest is powerless.
In fact, the higher one finds themselves within the hierarchy of the Church, the more strict their obligation is to serve humbly and faithfully, even unto death (this is why a Cardinal wears red—the color of martyrdom).
Lentz also seems to imply that priests get in the way of a Christian’s “right” to pray “where you are right now” to God. But, again, that betrays a deep ignorance towards how the priesthood works. Priests serve to pray with the people and for the people; but they do not pray instead of the people. Christians always have the right—and duty—to pray directly to God whenever and wherever the Spirit of God moves them to do so.
In The Beginning
Perhaps the most obvious problem with Lentz’s objection is the explicit and overwhelming presence of the priesthood in the early Christian Church, from the first century onwards. There’s just no question that Jesus instituted a New Priesthood for His New Covenant Church.
In the New Testament we see justification for belief in the succession of the apostles (see Acts 1) as well as the distinct roles of bishops, presbyters (or elders), and deacons within the Church. Outside of the Gospels, ordination by the laying on of hands as well as the priestly roles of preaching and teaching are most strongly emphasized in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. But for a comprehensive view of what the Bible has to say about the New Testament priesthood, see Karlo Broussard’s Bible Blueprint For The Priesthood.
Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John, refers to the hierarchy of bishop, priest and deacon in many of his early first century letters. For example:
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” (Letter to the Magnesians 6:1 [written A.D. 110])
And in the same letter:
“He that is within the sanctuary is pure; but he that is outside the sanctuary is not pure. In other words, anyone who acts without the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons does not have a clear conscience” (7:2).
Finally, I’ll leave you with the reverent words of Clement of Alexandria who leaves no room for doubt that the priests of the early Church, along with the bishops and deacons, were not to be seen as hindrances to a life of holiness, but rather as a sort of symbol or foreshadowing of the heavenly holiness that is promised to all who believe and walk in obedience to Christ:
“Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel” (Miscellanies 6:13:107:2 [A.D. 208]).
***For more on the early Church hierarchy click here.